Clean water a part of the bottom line (Post Gazette)

JOHN HAYES, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, jhayes@post-gazette.com

Two novel programs attempt to improve the quality of fishable waters by improving the way farmers fertilize the land.

In Ohio, farmers face an end-of-summer deadline to complete a training program designed to reduce toxic algae that sours the fishing on Lake Erie. And days before yesterday’s opening of the Pennsylvania harvest season for all bass species, it was announced that the Chesapeake Bay Foundation will receive an innovative federal grant designed to establish new farm conservation practices. Chesapeake Bay is fed mostly by Pennsylvania rivers including the Susquehanna, where agricultural runoff is believed to contribute to chemical pollution that has fouled what was once a world-class smallmouth fishery.

The Chesapeake Bay Foundation (CBF) and multiple partners are expected to match a three-year $415,000 Conservation Innovation Grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The program is intended to reduce farm runoff and enable municipalities to comply with stormwater pollution reduction requirements while returning profits to the program’s capital investors. The “pay for success” program could be a win-win-win for the environment and the economy, said CBF’s Pennsylvania executive director Harry Campbell.

“Farms get practices that reduce the amount of polluted runoff entering our rivers and streams,” he said. “Municipalities get credit toward their MS4 [Municipal Separate Storm Sewer System] requirements and save money doing it, and investors make a profit.”

The MS4 program was created by Congress to reduce the amount of polluted runoff from urban and suburban areas that enters municipal storm sewer systems. In areas with inadequate infrastructure and stormwater management, runoff creates flooding and carries untreated polluted runoff into local rivers and streams.

Under “pay for success,” select municipalities would pay a financial intermediary if specific agricultural pollution reductions were achieved. With capital from private investors, the intermediary would contract with service providers to install pollution reduction measures on farms. If the desired pollution reductions were met, the municipality could apply the results to satisfy its urban-suburban stormwater compliance requirements. The municipality would then pay the intermediary, which in turn would repay investors, with interest.

Russell Redding, Pennsylvania’s secretary of agriculture, said the pay-for-success project supported by the grant represents an “innovative approach” to joining the agricultural and urban sectors’ attempts to achieve clean water.

“It offers Pennsylvania enormous potential to achieve substantial and cost-effective nutrient and sediment pollution reductions by infusing private capital in the implementation of agricultural best-management practices,” he said.

Polluted runoff from agriculture and urban-suburban sources are among the leading sources of pollution to roughly 19,000 miles of rivers and streams in Pennsylvania. Urban and suburban polluted runoff is the only source of pollution that continues to increase within the Chesapeake Bay watershed.

In pay-for-success, profits are made by investing in low-cost farm programs and cashing in on city programs.

“There is a big cost differential between doing stormwater controls in urban-suburban areas versus doing pollution controls on agricultural land,” said Beth McGee, CBF director of Science and Agricultural Policy. “It can be 10- to 100-fold more expensive in urban areas.”

Big for-profit investors might invest more quickly than government or foundations may spend, she said,

and they’d be repaid over a longer period of time.

“They are assuming the risk,” said McGee. “The municipality is only going to pay if the project is performing as it was designed. The investors expect to make money because of the large cost differential.”

Private investors have not been identified, but CBF is partnering with organizations experienced in working with municipal stormwater compliance and agricultural production. Land O’Lakes Inc., a farmer-owned food and agriculture cooperative, has agreed to provide outreach and technical assistance on the project.

In Ohio, farmers “profit” by not being fined. Agriculture leaders say thousands of farmers have completed training required for putting fertilizer on fields, but many more face a September deadline to finish the program aimed at combating the toxic algae fouling Lake Erie.

The first-of-its-kind requirement is one of several steps Ohio has taken to reduce the farm runoff that feeds algae in the state’s lakes and rivers. State lawmakers put the measure in place in 2014, just months before algae in Lake Erie contaminated the drinking water for more than 400,000 people in northwestern Ohio and southeastern Michigan.

Farmers were given three years to become certified to use commercial fertilizer on farmlands of more than 50 acres. So far, about 12,000 farmers and workers who apply commercial fertilizer — mainly phosphorus and nitrogen — have been certified, said Dave Daniels, director of the state’s agriculture department. An estimated 6,000 to 10,000 still need to finish the three-hour course. A firm number is difficult to pin down because some farmers hire contractors to apply their fertilizer.

Ohio State University Extension has agreed to offer about 200 training sessions this year in nearly every county.

Daniels, who attended one of the first sessions a few years ago, said he found almost no one wanted to be there. But he said surveys of participants show that almost all say they learned something that will help them save money and improve the environment.

Research has shown that about one-third of farmland doesn’t need additional fertilizer and that farmers could save thousands if they realized this, Daniels said.

“They may walk in with a bad attitude, but they walk out with something they can go home with that will really help them with their operation,” said Greg LaBarge, a field specialist with Ohio State University who helps oversee the training.

Kris Swartz, who farms just south of Toledo and is active with soil and water conservation groups, said the mandatory training forces farmers to look at the issue even if they’re resistant.

“Most farmers are resigned that they have to do it, a lot of them want to do it and some of them are looking at it as one more hurdle,” he said.

Environmental groups that have been critical of Ohio’s efforts to combat the algae say the state is relying too much on voluntary efforts that encourage using the right amount of fertilizer at the right time and in the right place.

The state does not intend to punish farmers right away if they’re not certified by the end of September, Daniels said. But if someone is found to be putting fertilizer on their fields without a license and refuses to get the certificate, misdemeanor charges could apply.

The Associated Press contributed.